The Manhunt Ends

updated 06/09/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The question with no answer kept nagging at them: How did he get in? How did the man who killed their daughter Carrie Lynn Yoder, 26, get into her Baton Rouge apartment late on March 3 so that he could rape and strangle her and finally dump her body near a bridge? "We have no clue whether he came in through a back window or the front door," says Carrie's mother, Lynda Yoder. "But it's always been our speculation that he came in wearing a uniform, because she never would have opened the door that late to a stranger."

Lynda and her husband, David, may not need to speculate much longer now that police in Atlanta have arrested the man they believe is the Louisiana serial killer. Former truck driver Derrick Todd Lee, 34, suspected of murdering five women in the Baton Rouge area and possibly two others in nearby Zachary, had eluded capture and even identification for most of his alleged 18-month killing spree, creating a sense of terror and panic among women in Baton Rouge. But in early May a break in another suspected homicide case (see box) led police to Lee, who skipped town and fled to Atlanta. Late on May 27 police got an FBI tip that Lee had been spotted in front of a tire shop in West Atlanta. Officers from the fugitive unit arrested him there without incident. Said Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington: "We have taken a very dangerous person that is a serial-murder suspect off the streets."

The emerging portrait of Lee offers clues about how he may have fooled and disarmed his apparent victims. Those who know the muscular, 6'1" Lee say he is anything but menacing; rather, he was always well-groomed, friendly and even charming. "He's congenial and gets along with people very well," says Richard Mecum, chief of the local U.S. Marshals office, which aided in the search. Lee's criminal record, though, tells another story. He has been arrested several times on Peeping Tom charges, most recently in 1999, was booked for beating up a woman in a bar in 2000 and convicted of breaking into a home in 1993. The unemployed Lee—who, before he fled, lived with his wife, Jacqueline Denise Lee, and their two children in St. Francisville, near Baton Rouge—filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and was served with foreclosure papers this May 16.

The search for the Baton Rouge serial killer began in July 2002, after DNA tests on the body of the third victim, Pam Kinamore, revealed a single person had murdered all three women. The news plunged Baton Rouge into a near frenzy, as frightened women stopped jogging outdoors, stocked up on pepper spray and signed up for self-defense classes. After Yoder's death in March, police appeared more stymied than ever, retracting a sketch they had released in 2002 and admitting they weren't sure of the killer's race.

Then came the big break: a tip that Lee had been overheard talking about the unsolved 1998 disappearance of Randi Mebruer, a divorced mother who lived near the site of one of Lee's arrests. Their suspicions raised, Baton Rouge police found Lee on May 5 and administered a DNA swab test. With no reason to hold him, they let him go. Police surveillance of Lee slackened when the DNA results took longer than expected, allowing him to slip away by the time he was named the top suspect. Traveling alone, he stayed for a week at the Lakewood Motor Lodge south of Atlanta, where he barbecued for guests and even organized a Bible-study group. He checked out after police released his photo May 26.

The next day his luck finally ran out. Lee's arrest brings hope to relatives like Lynda and David Yoder, who may finally learn what happened to their loved ones. And yet, Lynda says now, answering all those unthinkable questions "isn't going to change anything. If he followed her in or broke in, knowing how he did it isn't going to help." Instead they will summon good memories of their daughter, a savvy world traveler with a flair for adventure. Those memories will have to sustain them over the trying days ahead. "It will be awful to sit in a courtroom" with Lee, says Lynda. "But for Carrie, I know I have to be there."

Alex Tresniowski
Lori Rozsa in Miami, Steve Barnes in Baton Rouge, Gail Wescott in Atlanta, Ellise Pierce in Dallas and Gabrielle Cosgriff in Houston

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